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How Minnesota Doubled Its Solar Capacity

The state’s cities and counties embarked on a rare kind of collaboration.

two men look over solar panels and discuss
Falcon Heights, Minn., Mayor Peter Lindstrom, a collaborative participant, shows off the solar panels on the roof of city hall.
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Americans love solar. Almost 9 in 10 adults favor expanding it, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. But not everyone can put panels on their homes. For one thing, the upfront cost of solar can be prohibitive. For another, some people don’t have the space, or their rooftops may be too shady or may face the wrong direction, or they don’t even own their rooftops because they rent. 

That’s where community shared solar comes in. Here’s how it works: Third parties set up solar panels on a parcel of land or rooftop. Households and businesses then share the electricity it produces through subscriptions. Community solar’s primary purpose is to give people access to solar power even if they cannot or prefer not to install it on their property. 

As it turns out, the same things that make community solar ideal for households and businesses are what make it ideal for governments, too. Minnesota proved that last year when it roughly doubled its solar capacity thanks to a group of local governments in the greater Twin Cities metropolitan region. The solar boom in the state is largely the result of a 2013 law, which required Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, to create a third-party solar garden program. Inspired, a handful of cities and counties met in 2015 to discuss how they could take advantage of the program. The result was the Governmental Solar Garden Subscriber Collaborative.

For these localities individually, the cost of solar, as well as the time and staff needed to understand the financing and technology behind it, was a deal breaker. But as a collaborative, all the cities and counties had to do was subscribe. “They didn’t have to go through the hassle of managing an onsite installation,” says Trevor Drake, project manager at the Great Plains Institute, which provided organizing support to the group.

Made up of 31 local governments, including Hennepin County, Ramsey County and the city of Minneapolis, the collaborative issued a single request for proposal to procure solar garden subscriptions. The goal for these local governments was to save money on electricity bills and to encourage solar development in their communities. By working together, the collaborative helped participants reduce the administrative burden and achieve an economy of scale in the solicitation process, thereby yielding better pricing and subscription terms. 

Ultimately, the cities and counties contracted for a total of 33 megawatts, enough to power more than 4,000 Minnesota homes for 25 years. By comparison, in 2015 Minnesota generated a total of 35 megawatts from solar. Participating communities expect to save between hundreds of thousands of dollars and more than $1 million over 25 years. Cities will realize these savings through a credit on their electricity bills, which Xcel determines by measuring the output of the solar gardens.

Having accomplished its goals, the collaborative ended last year. But Drake says if they ever do another iteration, he’d replicate the model. “The thing that was really surprising to me was the level of interest in this,” he says. “I attribute that to the fact that all the participating local governments had to do was submit a letter of intent that said they would subscribe to a certain amount of solar if they received a favorable offer -- and they were allowed to determine what favorable meant. After that, they merely had to say yes or no. They could drop out at any point for no consequence. I think that helped get people in the door.”

Drake also says making this a group effort was key. “Participants ranked being able to do this together and being able to learn from one another really high,” he says. “Going forward, they have the basic knowledge and the network to do this on their own.” 

Community solar itself isn’t new, but banding together to procure it is rare. “I’m interested in how this model applies to other types of procurement in clean energy,” says Drake. “Could a bunch of local governments come together and do this same thing to purchase electric vehicles for their fleets or LED streetlights? I would love for folks to think about how this model could be replicated in that way.” 

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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